June 29, 2020, © Leeham News: Boeing may be set to begin recertification flights of the 737 MAX as early as today, The Seattle Times reported last week.
Testing will take three days, if all goes well. But Boeing still has a lot of work to do to fully satisfy regulators.
According to The Times, Transport Canada and Europe’s EASA require additional modifications to enhance safety on the MAX. The additional changes may not be required for certification but must be done within a year, the paper reports. The MAX 10 must have the changes before it is certified.
Returning the MAX to the air remains controversial. Many, especially the families of those killed in two crashes in 2018 and 2019, believe the plane should be grounded. But changes required after painstaking investigations and reviews by EASA and Transport Canada, essentially double checking the Federal Aviation Administration, should result in fixing all the problems that were found. Some were directly related to the accidents and others were discovered in the course of the safety reviews.
Still, some surveys conducted before the COVID-19 crisis indicated as much as 40% of those surveyed won’t fly the MAX for months to come. These passengers want to see the airplane operate safely.
The MAX isn’t the first airplane tainted by safety issues and fatal crashes. It most likely won’t be the last.
Safety questions arose over the Airbus A320 after one crashed during an air show demonstration. The model was new; the type entered service only two months before. The A320 was the first airliner that had flight envelope protection designed into the advanced, computerized system. Pilots were skeptical to begin with. After the crash, suspicion that the system trapped the pilots arose.
The investigation concluded pilots were to blame for the accident. In future years, other A320s crashed and pilots sometimes pointed to doubts over the systems again.
The A320, of course, went on to a highly successful sales history. Nearly 16,000 have been sold.
The 737 had a previous black eye that was overcome.
Two crashes and possibly a third were attributed to a malfunctioning rudder power control unit. Solving these proved a mystery until an East Wind 737 experienced a hard over rudder condition at an altitude high enough to allow recovery. The PCU had a design flaw and Boeing’s rudder design didn’t have back-up to prevent this single source of failure. A redesign fixed the issue.
The development and production history of the 787 already hurt its image. Billions of dollars in cost overruns, 3 ½ years of delays and an in-flight fire on a test flight cast dark shadows over the airplane. But when it finally entered service in October 2011, it seemed most of the problems were behind it.
Then, in January 2013, a lithium ion battery caught fire on a Japan Air Lines 787 parked in Boston. Nobody was hurt, and the fire was thought likely to be a one-off event.
Two weeks later, an ANA on take-off experienced another battery event. No fire broke out, but the battery smoked. The FAA grounded the 787 for three months, until a containment system was designed.
There was some passenger avoidance for a period of time, but the 787 today is considered a highly successful airplane with a solid reputation.
The DC-10 was plagued with design defects. By themselves, none caused an accident—other circumstances combined to bring down airplanes. But the DC-10 was grounded in 1979 after an engine fell off an American Airlines flight on take-off from O’Hare Airport. In the end, this accident was traced to an ill-advised engine/pylon removal procedure, approved by McDonnell Douglas and the FAA, which turned out to crack a part that finally failed under stress of take-off power.
The engine flipped up and over the wing, smashing hydraulic lines in the leading edge. Fluid leaked out, allowing the left wing slats to retract. The wing stalled. The pilots followed the operating manual to the letter but didn’t know the engine left the airplane and the slats retracted. The airplane flipped over and crashed into a trailer park.
Stoppers were added to the hydraulic lines in the wing to prevent this leakage from happening again. But it did in 1986, when the No. 2 engine failed and a disk blew apart. Fragments severed the hydraulic lines in the horizontal stabilizer, allowing fluid to drain from all lines. Controls didn’t work and only through brilliant aviating did United Airlines Flight 232 make it to Sioux City (IA). In a spectacular, filmed crash landing, 111 were killed—but more than 180 people survived.
A poorly designed cargo door latching mechanism caused the crash of a Turkish Airlines DC-10, killing all aboard. Previously, an American DC-10 avoided a similar crash by skilled aviating.
The reputation of the DC-10 never fully recovered. But the plane went on to serve the industry reliably until it was retired due to aging and economic issues.
There are several other examples of planes that had reputational hits to them. The Boeing 727 had a string of fatal accidents, all ultimately attributed to pilot error. But at the time, the reputation was hurt. The 727 went on to be a successful and highly regarded airplane.
The Lockheed Electra prop-jet wasn’t as lucky. After two crashes six months apart in which a wing separated in flight, traced to a design flaw, the plane’s reputation didn’t recover.
The Douglas DC-6 and Lockheed Constellation were grounded after fatal crashes due to design flaws. Each went on to restored reputations and solid careers. The Martin 202 also was grounded after a fatal crash and a design defect. Its reputation didn’t recover.
The point is, the MAX potentially can come back and rebuild its reputation. But it’s not a sure thing. For months, the slightest incident is going to garner headlines as a “blow to MAX,” or something similar. These will be unfair.
If there is another crash, it won’t matter to the skeptics, critics or ill-informed headline writers if the MAX was zapped by a ray gun from outer space. Someone, somewhere, somehow will tie the crash to MCAS.
Only time will tell if MAX’s reputation—and Boeing’s—can be restored to good standing.